Editor’s note: The following column is adapted from the author’s new book, “What’s Killing America” (Center Street, September 26)
In the past few years, Oregon and Washington have effectively legalized drugs as part of the Black Lives Matter movement’s criminal justice reforms. It’s been an abject failure, taking thousands of lives. Now, voters say they’ve had enough. But will anything actually change?
In the once vibrant cities of Portland and Seattle, radical left activists and politicians spearheaded campaigns to remove police – and the greater criminal justice system – from drug enforcement. Buoyed by anti-police sentiment in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the Radical Left were able to convince voters in the Pacific Northwest to green light drug decriminalization.
Three years later, voters are demanding a return to drug enforcement.
A recent survey by Emerson College Polling found that 56% of Oregon voters want to completely repeal Measure 110, which legalized the personal possession of illicit substances statewide. Similarly, 60% of Seattle voters support arresting for public use, having experienced the brunt of the historic rise in fatal overdoses thanks to Democrats in the state legislature, while 64% support criminal penalties for drug possession, according to a Seattle Times/Suffolk University poll.
The changes in public sentiment should have been expected. Drug legalization advocates promised programs delivering to addicts the help they so desperately needed, eschewing any attempt to “criminalize addiction.” They didn’t follow through.
Multnomah County, where Portland is located, saw fatal overdoses from synthetic opioids like fentanyl jump over 500% between 2018 and 2022. The crisis shows no sign of subsiding, with 911-related overdose calls in the county doubling from May to June 2023, compared to last year. In King County, with Seattle drives the stats, there have been historic fatal overdose highs each year during the legalization experiment, with 2023 (at 915) on pace to far exceed 2020’s record-high 1,000.
But as I detail in my forthcoming book “What’s Killing America,” advocates failed to deliver on promises to treat addiction. Failure is by design: The Radical Left never intended to prioritize drug treatment. Instead, they adopt a radical approach to dealing with drug addicts and it’s already spread outside the Pacific Northwest. It’s called “harm reduction.”
This approach aims to reduce the health consequences of drug use, be they physical or mental. For example, sharing needles spreads diseases, so public health officials and nonprofit groups hand out clean needles. This helps prevent the spread of HIV or other blood-borne diseases. Instead of allowing someone to shoot up heroin or smoke fentanyl alone, they’re offered a “safe consumption site” to use in front of a medical professional. This allows a nurse to intervene during an overdose.
But as more progressive-minded politicians and activists gained control over local programs, the envelope was pushed. At first, the idea of a heroin injection site was, frankly, insane. The idea that government agencies and nonprofits would set up space for addicts to comfortably shoot up seems almost like a parody. All that these sites are missing is a soothing soundtrack of waterfalls and chirping birds, mood lighting, and a shoulder massage while they inject themselves with a poison that is ruining their lives.
Yet after the model was adopted in Vancouver, British Columbia, left-wing American politicians quickly jumped on the bandwagon, rushing to see which city could establish the nation’s first heroin den.
The New York City Department of Health took harm reduction messaging to the extreme with a series of subway posters meant to empower addicts. “Don’t be ashamed you are using, be empowered that you are using safely,” one poster read. Another explores the benefits of testing your drugs before smoking them. “Fentanyl test strips can save your life,” the poster announces, instructing addicts to test their drugs and consume in groups, one at a time, to help intervene in case of a drug overdose. Warning people not to use drugs can also save lives, but is apparently too stigmatizing to message to the addict community.
To question harm reduction is sacrilege in liberal cities; if you offer even the slightest criticism, the Radical Left labels you a monster who wants to see addicts die. It’s why progressive activists and politicians respond, perched upon the highest of high horses, by claiming they just want to save lives while you want to stigmatize addicts.
The National Harm Reduction Coalition claims “stigma creates the social conditions that make people who use drugs believe they are not deserving of being treated with dignity and respect, perpetuating feelings of fear and isolation.” You are, advocates insist, to cast no judgment on an addict because it gets in the way of treatment by making the addict feel “unwelcome or judged by program staff that offers services.” We’re supposed to believe it’s not the consequence-free drug use and open embrace of addiction that’s stopping them from treatment. It’s the stigma.
This contrived argument is meant to shut down the opposition. Progressive activists pursuing harm reduction strategies rely on little opposition. They use arguments guilting the public into submission, insisting progressive neighbors that they should consider their privilege and embrace discomfort to help those in need.
The guilt works in cities with the most left-wing voters, all eager to be in the vanguard of a revolution in tackling societal ills. This tactic allows Radical Left public health officials and politicians to keep veering policy farther to the left.
While voters in Portland and Seattle voice their displeasure with radical drug policy, they shouldn’t expect any changes in the near future. Radical Left activists won’t give up.
While far-left Portland mayor Ted Wheeler called for Measure 110 to be repealed, the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance is warning that the county would lose $58 million in drug treatment funds. Of course, the argument is disingenuous since addicts are hardly being treated and funds are being spent on harm reduction tools, including needles and pipes. Even Wheeler noted in March that “here we are two years later, and we’ve seen the decriminalization of hard drugs, but we’re not seeing the treatment.” After delays, the first Measure 110 funded detox facility will open this month, nearly three years after passage.
In Washington, Democrat state lawmakers relented and reclassified drug possession a gross misdemeanor after two years of legalization. But Seattle hasn’t updated its municipal code to codify the change. Under the current policy, drug charges go to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which won’t pursue drug possession cases.
Radicals on the city council rejected a measure that would given those cases to the Seattle City Attorney, a Republican who says she’ll charge when appropriate. But the far-left majority on the council wanted less punitive measures taken, while Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office hasn’t even written a replacement, compromise drug policy that was supposed to get a vote last month.
As someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen this story unfold before: voters claim they’re upset with progressive city governance, but do little to pressure politicians into actually changing course. Often, they vote into office the same kind of Radical Left politician.
Will drug legalization be the issue that finally pushes voters in the Rose City or Emerald City to act? Only time will tell.
Portions of this op-ed were excerpted from “What’s Killing America” by Jason Rantz. (Copyright 2023) Used with permission from Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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